Part 33 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

Larry Pratt

Well, there he goes again. And, again, he is wrong. I am, of course, talking about Emory History Professor Michael A. Bellesiles, author of Arming America (Knopf, 2000).

Responding to yet one more critic in a reply posted on the History News Network (4/9/02), Bellesiles takes Randolph Roth to task for having said, in the William And Mary Quarterly (Volume LIX, Number 1, 2002), that certain Vermont Court records have been “missing since the early twentieth century.” Roth is a member of the Department of History at Ohio State University and of the Editorial Board of the publication Historical Methods. The records Roth said in his article are missing are Vermont Superior Court records for the time period September 1782 through August 1791.

Not so, says Bellesiles. He writes: “They were missing until I found them while working on my dissertation in 1984. At the time I was working on this dissertation, everyone told me that the records were lost. With the help of Oscar Knowles of Newfane, Vermont, I found those records in the abandoned jailhouse in Newfane. Those records and many others were stacked in boxes in the jail cells and I spent the next four months taking notes from those sources in unheated rooms by the light of a Coleman lantern. I used those records at length in my book Revolutionary Outlaws, as Professor Roth knew, since he reviewed that book. The records are now in the Newfane Historical Society and their existence can be verified by Vermont’s State Archivist, Gregory Stanford.”

OK. Got it? According to Bellesiles, the records Roth says are missing are not only not missing; he, Bellesiles found them when “everyone” said they were lost. True? You gotta be kidding.

In an interview, Roth says nope, that — surprise! — Bellesiles is wrong. He says: “We’re talking about different records.” He says what Bellesiles looked at were county court records from Windham County or, before, when it was called Cumberland County and was part of New York.

Roth, who says he has examined all the documents in the jailhouse Bellesiles alludes to — 230 cubic feet of documents! — insists that the documents he said are missing are still missing. And that there was no superior court in the 1780s and 1790s, only the Supreme Court and county court.

Roth says that it was “absolutely clear,” in his William And Mary Quarterly article, what records he said were missing. So, how could Bellesiles misconstrue what he said? He replies: “You’ll have to ask him.” Roth adds, concerning Arming America: “It’s clear in my professional circles that the debate is over. It’s done…. It’s just a book that has to be re-done.”

We also interviewed Vermont State Archivist Gregory Sanford who Bellesiles says can “verify” the fact that the records Roth says are missing are in the Newfane Historical Society. For openers, Sanford says he’s never heard of any Newfane Historical Society. He adds: “I know there are early Windham County records in Newfane, that they were fairly massive and largely inaccessible. As a sort of consultant’s help, I got them arranged. I am not familiar with the individual records within the collections because I don’t have physical or legal custody over Vermont court records.”

    Q: “So, you cannot verify that the records from that jailhouse are in the Newfane Historical Society?”

    A: “No, I won’t do that. I had heard the sheriff’s office wanted the space [in that jailhouse]. And that’s my last contact with the project.”

    Q: “Do you know where these records are?”

    A: “No.”

    Q: “In that jailhouse were there any Vermont Superior Court records for the time period September 1782 through August 1791?”

    A: “No, the inventory lists first the first Vermont Supreme Court opening date as 1794. The county court starts in 1771.”

    Q: “So, you see no Superior Court records?”

    A: “No.”

As regards the records in that jailhouse Bellesiles says everyone told him were “lost,” Sanford says: “The county clerk, obviously, knew they were there. [The jail] is across from the courthouse. The courthouse vault was fairly full,” which is why records were moved to the jailhouse.

    Q: “So the records in the jailhouse were not missing because whoever put them there knew they were there?”

    A: “Yeah, obviously.”

Sanford reads to us from a 1906 history book which says, in part, about Vermont, that in 1782 an act was passed that, among other things, abolished the Superior Court.

In yet one more interview, we spoke with Larry Robinson, Clerk of the Vermont Superior Court.

    Q: “Was there a Vermont Superior Court during the time period September 1782 through August 1791?”

    A: “No. The Superior Court has only been in existence for 20-25 years. It used to be the County Court. About 1980, they changed everything to the Superior Court.”

Robinson says the old jailhouse Bellesiles alludes to was not “abandoned.” He says: “We store all our old records there.”

A footnote: Bellesiles is also wrong when he mentions one “Oscar Knowles.” The man’s real name is Oscar Newell. We spoke with his son Brent who told us that his Dad did, in the mid-1980s, do some painting and carpentry work at the aforementioned old jailhouse. But, he says, he knows nothing about his Dad helping any Michael Bellesiles find any records. Clerk Robinson also said he had never heard this story.